‘What if someone buried my son?’ Anguish of search for Armenia’s war dead
Overwhelmed labs struggle to process DNA tests after Nagorno-Karabakh war leaves 5,000 dead
Eight months after the end of the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh that left more than 5,000 people dead, many soldiers are still missing. In Armenia, families are desperately looking for news about their loved ones. There is a growing lack of trust around DNA tests and a lack of information, leading to mounting pressure on the government.
Larissa Dureyan has been looking for her 20-year-old son Mxitar since October. He began his mandatory military service in July 2019 and was serving in Fizuli when war broke out in September last year.
On 12 October he called his mother to say he was being transferred somewhere else, without saying where. It was the last time she heard from him. “They brought a body of a boy wearing my son’s jacket. They also found his credit card in the pocket,” she said. “The face was not recognisable. My son’s hands were full of scars because he had been through surgery when he was a teenager. So first I looked at the hands of the body. They were perfect, completely scarless.
“I had given my DNA already, and I asked if they had checked. They said they had not but that it was certainly my son since his jacket and his credit card were on the body. I insisted that they check the DNA.” When the test was checked, officials realised it was not her son.
“Imagine if I had buried someone else’s child, they would not have been able to find him. And what if someone else has buried my son, thinking it’s theirs?” said Dureyan. Since the mistake was uncovered, she has continued searching for her son in morgues, hospitals and online, posting pictures of him on social media. But she has not found him.
The numbers still missing or being held as prisoners of war in Azerbaijan remain unclear. Armenia’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, said in mid-April that 3,621 people were confirmed dead, there were 321 missing people, and 200 bodies yet to be identified. Human rights defenders have appealed to the European court of human rights about the fate of more than 200 PoWs.
While Dureyan still has no news, some families have ended up finding their sons. In January, Narine Gasparyan was told that forensics experts had identified the body of her son from a DNA sample. She was given three bones to bury, the only parts of him remaining, she was told.
Then a few weeks later Gasparyan received the news from the lab that it was not him. The family excavated the buried bones and continued looking for their son. “Two weeks later we found the full, still recognisable corpse of our son in a morgue. I saw him and it was him,” said Gasparyan.
Gasparyan does not want her son’s case to be used to criticise those working to identify the bodies. “I just think that scientists are people too, and maybe they were just tired because they work so much now. We talked with the lab and accepted the idea that it was a genuine mistake. Still, it was very painful,” she said. “But we feel lucky that at least we now found the body of our son and were at least able to properly bury him. Many people have nothing.”
A scientific challenge
Diana Harutyunyan is a forensic genetic expert at the Scientific Practical Centre of Forensic Medicine working under the authority of the health ministry. “We feel terrible about it. But you must know that it was a human mistake when transcribing figures, it has nothing to do with the machines,” she said.
The centre used to have only a few cases a year of DNA identification from bones, related to criminal cases or archaeological research. After the war in Nagorno-Karabakh it was deluged with several hundred bones and body parts to identify. The lab employees admit they were overwhelmed.
It was not only the number of victims that made it difficult to do the DNA testing. “There were mechanical and chemical hardships for those corpses,” Harutyunyan said. “We do have a few cases of fragments that are so deeply burned, so damaged, that we do not know if we will be able to identify them at all.” Armenia has accused Azerbaijan of using white phosphorus, which could explain the burns found on soldiers and corpses.
“Groups of people were hit and burned. They all died. A pit was dug; all the bodies were put in it. So all the bones have to be identified and the parts that have exactly the same profile, that’s when you understand they belonged to the same body and the same person.”
The lab has been giving out bones before reconstituting full corpses. “The Red Cross advised us to wait to identify several bones and parts of the body of one person and reconstitute a corpse before giving it back to the family,” Harutyunyan said. “Can you imagine us telling families we have your son but wait we are not giving him back yet? It is just impossible. Families are not that patient, they cannot wait, they put pressure on us.”
Lack of trust
Some families do not trust the results of the official lab and decide to verify them by sending DNA samples outside Armenia or by consulting private companies.
Anna Hovhannisyan is the CEO of Genetic Forensic Centre LLC, a private company doing DNA testing. Before the war, she didn’t work on DNA-testing bones, but she started after receiving financial help from a group of French doctors, Santé Arménie.
“People come here with a DNA test from the official lab, and with DNA extracts. They give me the sample and I do the same internationally recognised research with markers like they did at the official lab,” Hovhannisyan said. So far she has only double-checked a few samples, without charging the families. All the samples matched the results of the official lab, meaning there was no mistake, except one.
“I have to refuse some people because I do not have the time or means to do so many tests. So people who have the financial means are contacting labs in Europe or the US,” she said.
“Parents do not trust us, so they test us. They bring the DNA samples of someone else not from the family, saying it is someone from the family, to see if we are going to realise it’s not someone from the family or not. Of course, we test for real, so we do realise it is not someone from the family, but we lose very precious time.”